One hundred and fifty years ago, France and Great Britain intervened in what was, and should have remained, a dispute between Russia and Turkey. The official beginning of what came to be called the Crimean War was on March 28, 1854, when Great Britain and France declared war on Russia. Coming between Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, the Crimean War should have been the “war to end all wars” instead of being a precursor to the carnage of the war that made “the world safe for democracy.”
There are three things that came out of the Crimean War that most people are familiar with but have no idea that they are connected with it: the nurse Florence Nightingale, the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and the novel War and Peace.
Florence Nightingale (1820—1910) was the famed pioneer of nursing and reformer of hospital sanitation methods. After hearing of the deplorable conditions that existed in the British Military Hospital at Scutari, opposite of Constantinople, she arrived in the Crimea with 38 nurses on November 4, 1854, and soon began to improve the conditions at the hospital.
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” was the poem written by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809—1892) that immortalized the disastrous British cavalry charge which occurred during the Crimean War at the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!” Was there a man dismay’d? Not tho’ the soldiers knew Some one had blunder’d: Their’s not to make reply Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the Six Hundred.
Set in Russia during the Napoleonic Era, War and Peace, by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828—1910), is the epic novel published between 1865 and 1869. Although most people have never read it, because it contains 365 chapters, War and Peace is the book usually mentioned when one wants to compare some daunting task to reading an unusually large book. The connection between War and Peace and the Crimean War? Tolstoy was a Russian second lieutenant in the Crimean War, and therefore an eyewitness to battle scenes he so realistically describes in this novel.
Located in southern Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula juts into the Black Sea and connects to the mainland by the Isthmus of Perekop. Its area is about 9700 square miles. Dry steppes, scattered with numerous burial-mounds of the ancient Scythians, cover more than two-thirds of the peninsula, with the Crimean mountains in the south rising to heights of 5,000 ft. before dropping sharply to the Black Sea.
Various peoples have occupied the Crimean peninsula over the years: Goths, Huns, Scythians, Khazars, Greeks, Kipchaks, Mongols. The Ottoman Turks conquered the region in 1475. In 1783, the whole of the Crimea was annexed to the Russian Empire. The Crimea was the scene of some bloody battles in the Second World War. It was also the site of the “Big Three” (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) Conference held in the former palace of Czar Nicholas at Yalta, a city on the Crimean southeastern shore of the Black Sea. It was here during the week of February 4—11, 1945, that Roosevelt delivered Eastern Europe to Stalin.
The underlying cause of the Crimean War was the Eastern Question — the international problem of European territory controlled by the decaying Ottoman Empire. The immediate causes of the Crimean War were religious. Now, there is nothing the least bit “religious” about war, but, without a complete separation of church and state, religion is often used by the state as a pretext for war. Russia (Orthodox) was engaged in a dispute with France (Catholic) over the guardianship of the “Holy Places” in Palestine, and a dispute with the Ottoman Turks over the protection of the Orthodox Christians subject to the Ottoman sultan. Russia demanded from the Turks that there be established a Russian protectorate over all Orthodox subjects in the Ottoman Empire. After Turkey refused, Russia, in July of 1853, occupied the Ottoman vassal states of Moldavia and Walachia. The czar made the claim that “by the occupation of the Principalities we desire such security as will ensure the restoration of our dues. It is not conquest that we seek but satisfaction for a just right so clearly infringed.”
In October of the same year, the Ottoman Turks declared war on Russia. War between Russia and Turkey was nothing new, as the Russo-Turkish Wars (1768—74, 1787—92, 1828—29) evidence. They had first clashed over Astrakhan in 1569. Although Constantinople had fallen to the Turks in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was in decline, and Russia, since the time of Peter the Great (1672—1725), had wanted to secure a warm-water outlet to the Mediterranean — at the expense of Ottoman territory. This naturally upset France and Great Britain, which saw Russian ambitions as a threat to the balance of power in the Mediterranean. Russia was given an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of its forces from the principalities. When Russia refused, France and Great Britain, having already dispatched fleets to the Black Sea, declared war on Russia on March 28, 1854. The Anglo-Franco alliance was a precarious one. France and Great Britain had historically been enemies, but, like Herod and Pilate, who “were made friends together” when they allied to condemn Christ (Luke 23:1—12), they united to check the ambitions of Russia, under the guise of defending Turkey.
Most of the subsequent fighting took place in the Crimea because of the strategic Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the southwestern coast. The accession of a new czar in Russia (Alexander II) and the capture of Sevastopol led to the Treaty of Paris (March 30, 1856) that ended the war and the dominant role of Russia in Southeast Europe. Britain and France saved the Ottoman empire, an empire that they would help destroy in World War I.
The Crimean War is known for a number of “firsts”: deadly accurate rifles, significant use of the telegraph, tactical use of railways, life-saving medical innovations, trench combat, undersea mines, “live” reporting to newspapers, and cigarettes.
But there is one other thing that began with the Crimean War that should have made it the war to end all wars: photography.
Although photography had only recently been invented before the Crimean War, it had progressed enough so as to make it possible to photograph the horrors of war. The wet collodion process by Frederick Scott Archer (1813—1857), introduced in 1850, cut exposure times from minutes to seconds.
War correspondents Thomas Chenery and William Russell relayed some of the horrors of war back to The Times in Britain. Thomas Agnew, of the publishing house Thomas Agnew & Sons, then proposed sending a photographer to the Crimea as a strictly private, commercial venture. The British government had previously made several official attempts to document the war with photographs. One effort ended in shipwreck, and none of the photographs survive from the other two.
Enter Roger Fenton (1819—1869). Fenton, who had previously photographed the royal family, spent four months in the Crimea (March 8 to June 26, 1855) photographing the war. He had the cooperation of Prince Albert and the ministry of war, as well as the field commanders in the Crimea. After converting a horse-drawn wine merchant’s “van” into a mobile darkroom, Fenton, his assistants, horses, photographic van, and equipment were transported to the Crimea courtesy of the British government. He returned to Britain with 360 photographs and cholera.
On September 20th, 1855, an exhibit of 312 of the photographs opened in London. Sets of photographs went on sale in November. Although the pictures were widely reviewed and advertised, when the war ended, interest in photographs of the war ended with it, and the entire stock of unsold prints and negatives were auctioned off by December of 1856. Fenton abandoned photography in 1862, putting an advertisement in the Photographic Journal to dispose of his equipment.
In 1944, the Library of Congress purchased 263 of Fenton’s prints from one of his relatives. The Roger Fenton Crimean War photographs, thought to be Fenton’s proof prints made upon his return, can be viewed online and freely downloaded, including his most well-known photograph, “Valley of the Shadow of Death.”
While Fenton’s photographs show plenty of scenes of military supplies, camp life, groups of soldiers, the leading figures of the allied armies, and landscape scenes, there are no scenes of combat or devastation. He wrote about scenes of death and destruction that he witnessed, but he did not photograph any of them. At the scene of the Light Brigade’s ill-fated charge, he saw “skeletons half-buried, one was lying as if he had raised himself upon his elbow, the bare skull sticking up with still enough flesh in the muscles to prevent it falling from the shoulders.” But whether it was because of an explicit directive from, or an implicit understanding with, the British government, the fact remains that Fenton witnessed the horrors of war, and had ample opportunity to photograph them, but didn’t. For political or commercial reasons, or both, the war was portrayed in the best possible light. A positive report was needed to counter negative press reports and to encourage the British nation to support the war effort. For this reason, Fenton’s photographs can be considered the first instance of photographic propaganda.
The Crimean War destroyed the lives of over 200,000 men. How many Russians could have become another Boris Pasternak or Igor Sikorsky? How many British could have become another Christopher Wren or Isaac Newton? How many French could have become another Victor Hugo or Frdric Bastiat? How many Turks could have become another Mustafa Kemal or Ali Erdemir. God only knows. The Crimean War could have and should have been the war to end all wars. Instead, as A. N. Wilson remarks in The Victorians, it was the greatest blunder of the nineteenth century, setting up animosities and alliances that led to World War I and the continuing turmoil of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
For the latest book on the Crimean War, see Trevor Royle’s Crimea: The Great Crimean War 1854-1856.